NIAMEY, Niger (AP) — Eleven West African nations have agreed to commit troops to a military deployment aimed at restoring Niger’s democratically elected president following last month’s coup, an official for the regional bloc said Friday after a defense ministers meeting.
The ECOWAS bloc previously announced its intention to deploy a force to reinstate President Mohamed Bazoum, who has been under house arrest since he was overthrown by members of the presidential guard July 26. But the 15-member bloc had not detailed which countries would join, nor has it said when the force might enter Niger.
On Friday, the ECOWAS commissioner for peace and security, Abdel-Fatau Musah, said 11 countries have committed to the deployment.
“We are ready to go anytime the order is given," Musah said in the Ghana capital, Accra, following two days of meetings there. “Our troops are ready to respond to the call of duty of the region."
The 11 countries don't include Niger itself and the bloc's three other countries under military rule following coups: Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso. The latter two have warned they would consider any intervention in Niger an act of war.
Musah indicated that ECOWAS is not yet giving up on engaging with Niger's coup leaders, who already have ignored a deadline to reinstate Bazoum and have not been receptive to negotiations on restoring his rule. Musah said an ECOWAS delegation may visit Niger on Saturday to try to pursue further dialogue with the Niger junta.
“We can stand down the military option; it is not our preferred option. But we are obliged to do it because of the intransigence of the regime and the obstacles they’ve been putting in the way of a negotiated settlement,” Musah said.
Meanwhile, a high-ranking member of Bazoum's political party warned in an interview with The Associated Press that if the mutinous soldiers who ousted Bazoum succeed, it will threaten democracy and security across the region and the continent,
“What is happening in Niger, if it succeeds, is the end of democracy in Africa. It’s over. ... If we fight today, it is to prevent these kind of things from happening and to ensure a future for our continent,” Sabo said on Thursday. Sabo is deputy secretary general of Bazoum's Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism.
In a region rife with coups, Niger was seen as one of the last democratic countries that Western nations could partner with to beat back a growing jihadi insurgency linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group. The overthrow of the president nearly one month ago has been a big blow to the United States, France and other European nations, which have invested hundreds of millions of dollars of military assistance into training Niger's army and — in the case of the French — conducting joint military operations.
Analysts and locals say the coup was triggered by an internal struggle between Bazoum and the head of the presidential guard, Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani, who says he's now in charge. Since then, the junta has been shoring up support among the population, exploiting grievances toward Niger's former colonial ruler, France, and silencing opposers.
Sabo is one of the few openly outspoken critics of the junta still in the country and not in hiding.
Several ministers and high-ranking politicians are detained, with human rights groups saying they are unable to access them, while others have been threatened, he said. Sabo called the groundswell of support for the regime in the capital deceptive, because the junta was paying people to rally in its favor. Niamey also was never a stronghold for Bazoum and the junta is being opportunistic, he said.
Pro junta rallies happen almost daily with hundreds and sometimes thousands of people marching through the streets, honking cars and waving Nigerien and Russian flags and chanting “down with France.” The junta has severed military agreements with France and asked Russian mercenaries from the Wagner group for help.
But although there was real frustration from political parties and civil society organizations toward Bazoum's party, including disagreements with its military alliance with France, it's unclear how much genuine support the junta has in the capital and across the country, Sahel experts say.
The junta could face challenges with its support base across the country if it can't financially appease local elites and if the army continues to suffer losses from growing jihadi violence, said Adam Sandor, post-doctoral researcher at the University of Bayreuth.
Attacks by jihadis are increasing since the coup, with at least 17 soldiers killed and 20 injured earlier this week during an ambush by jihadis. It was the first major attack against Niger’s army in six months.
Militants are taking advantage of a gap in support by France and the United States, which have both suspended military operations in the country, as well as Niger’s distracted security forces, which are focusing on the capital and concerned about a potential invasion from regional countries, say conflict experts.
Meanwhile, in Niamey and across the country, a volunteer recruitment drive is expected Saturday where people can register to fight and help with other needs so the junta has a list in case it needs to call on people for help.
“We know that our army may be be less in terms of numbers than the armies (coming),” said Amsarou Bako, one of the organizers. “Those who are coming, they have information about our army,” he said.
Residents of the capital are struggling to cope with the financial impact caused by the coup. Not only have the severe economic and travel sanctions made it hard for people to access their money and for shop owners to import food, the crisis has also forced hundreds of foreigners to leave, which has impacted local businesses.
“I used to have all kind of customers here, Americans, French, Italians,” said Mamoudou Idrissa a restaurant owner. But now many foreigners have left and those who remain are afraid to go out, he said. “Only Nigerien citizens come here now to eat."
Associated Press journalist Francis Kokutse in Accra, Ghana, contributed to this report.